Thursday, July 11, 2013

Recent Reads: Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland 1916

Who won the Battle of Jutland in 1916? Did Admiral Jellicoe and the British Grand Fleet win because they chased the Germans back to port, or did the German High Seas Fleet under the command of Admiral Scheer win because they inflicted more causalities on their enemy? As a corollary, as Keith Yates points out in his book, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916, the Germans were smart enough to get their version out to the world first, thus scoring a huge propaganda victory and setting the subsequent tone of historical debate. The British Admiralty, on the contrary, totally botched their immediate post-battle public relations, taking three press releases to finally announce that they have won a decisive victory over the Germans. In a work that is generally favorable to Admiral Jellicoe, Yates argues that Jutland was a major British victory, and, in fact, one of the most important naval battles in history. It removed an important weapon from the German hands, secured the blockade, and caused the Germans to embark on a new naval policy, one that brought the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. My big take away from this book is that the German policy of naval expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth- and first two decades of the twentieth- century was a really bad national policy choice. They could never catch up to the British, despite the fact that Germany did build a first rate fighting navy. It needlessly provoked the British and diverted resources and manpower into a weapon they could only use minimally when it was most needed. There were several minor sorties following Jutland, but most of the best officers and men joined the U-boat service. The rest grew increasingly sullen and restless as they whiled away their time at port. My other take aways from Flawed Victory are: • The British navy was obsessed with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s decisive victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805. Every officer and every engagement was measured by that impossible yardstick. There was an enormous letdown in the British Navy, government, and people after Jutland because the German fleet had not been totally annihilated. This led to a long and very acrimonious public relations battle as each admiral, officer, and politician weighed in with each really trying to sound more Nelsonian than the other. • The British did not manage their information very effectively. Admiral Beatty’s (British Cruiser commander) signalman made several significant mistakes over several engagements. Several of the signal ships did not pass messages along the line. Some messages were misinterpreted (sometimes due to smoke and sometimes due to lack of clarity). Finally, room 40, which was Naval intelligence unit that intercepted all the German naval communications, did not pass important information to Admiral Jellicoe during the battle. Room 40 intercepted signals indicating Admiral Scheer’s retreat route following Jutland, but did not relay that to Jellicoe. • The British had bigger guns and boats, but the Germans had the better training in gunnery, night fighting, and superior range finding equipment. • Jutland was a fitting parallel to the Somme, because they both ended with a stalemate.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Favorite Civil War general

I am taking my cue from a posting on Eric Wittenberg’s blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian here that his favorite general is John Buford, the Union cavalryman who was instrumental to the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago today. Wittenberg is also writing a biography of Buford. My favorite Civil War general is Philip Kearny, the one-armed Union soldier killed at Chantilly, Virginia on September 1, 1862. Kearny is best remembered for his critical comments of George B. McClellan’s ponderous Peninsula Campaign.

The scion of very wealthy family and nephew of famed frontier soldier Stephen Watts Kearny, Philip joined the Army against his father’s wishes and obtained a commission without attending West Point. The younger Kearny lost an arm at Churubusco in the Mexican War. Afterwards he served as an army recruiter in New York City where he thrashed some young punks with his one arm when they jeered him and his recruits, and on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. In addition to fighting on the frontier and during the Mexican War, Kearny rode with French troops against rebels in Algeria, and again later in Italy at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He was a colorful figure on these and American Civil War battlefields later on, as he charged through the smoke waving his sword with his one arm, and clenching the reigns of his horse in his teeth. For more information on Kearny, the source remains Irving Werstein, Kearny the Magnificent, which was published in 1962. Here is a good internet biography.

Kearny is not my favorite general solely due to his interesting life, but because in the process of writing a graduate level term paper on him at St. John’s University, I examined a personal manuscript collection for the first time. His papers are housed at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey. Kearny’s own letters were a mess. His handwriting is even worse than mine. With only one arm, he had no ability to hold the paper and write, so the sentences tended to move in a circular pattern as he scribbled. In addition to his letters, I read the handwritten letter of condolence from President Abraham Lincoln to Kearny’s widow, as well as letters from other important historical personages, including one from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informing Mrs. Kearny that her husband was scheduled to have received the command of a corps before he was killed. It is interesting to ponder the possibility of Kearny leading a corps or even army. I am not sure if army command would have been possible had he lived. On the one hand he had experience, a willingness (one might even say desire) to fight, and he was a War Democrat, a valuable commodity to the Lincoln Administration. On the other hand, Kearny was known to criticize his commanders and he was uncomfortably close to newspapers, particularly in New Jersey, hostile to the administration. In the parlance of the 21st century, he “leaked” unfavorable information to the press.